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Radical History: Thinking, Writing and Engagement (Part 1)

by Rowan Cahill on April 15, 2016
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Kicking away the props

In recent years, in various places and on our blog ‘Radical Sydney/Radical History’ I have written, in collaboration with Terry Irving, about radical history. As radical historians we seek out, explore, and celebrate the diversities of alternatives and oppositions, arguing there is a basic tension between radical history and  ‘mainstream history’, a history that is constituted to prop up both capitalism and the state. We see our history as part of the struggle against capitalism and the state. In researching the past, we do not do it nostalgically, but with utilitarian, political intent, recognising that the past has the capacity to variously inspire and inform the present and the future. In a nutshell, while mainstream history would like people to read it, radical history wants its readers to act as history makers; while mainstream history props, radical history unprops.

So, in more abstract terms we believe radical history has three distinguishing features:  its subject matter, its political stance, and its relationship to its audience. Radical historians write about the struggles of disempowered people to stand up to their oppressors and exploiters, and to take control of their lives by attacking coercive authority and by socialising power. They tell stories of resistance and agency, not of ruling and maintaining order, which are the signs of ruling class history. Radical historians, secondly, are partisan. They write with a social purpose, and in doing so they draw on radical philosophies and methods. They write history as a political act. Thirdly, although writing about the past, they want to encourage people in the present to resist and rebel. Because the radical past was always being made anew their work is pregnant with possibilities, alerting their readers to the possibilities for action in their own situations. This has consequences for how they write. Readers must be given space to reflect on the present as well as the past. It is not enough to tell stories; the stories have to be shaped by theory, sharpened by the historian’s passion, and riddled with unresolved political questions. Moreover, whether writing for other radical intellectuals, engaging with scholarship and theory, or seeking a wider audience, radical historians place a high value on clarity of expression, avoiding like the plague the over-theoreticised language of academic in-groups, and their self-aggrandising citation of trendy thinkers.

We write radical history from an urban perspective. The capitalist city is as distinctive a historical space as, say, the nation-state, the free-trade empire or the eighteenth/nineteenth century slave ship. Like them it is organised by the processes of capital accumulation and class relations into zones of activity and meaning that change over time. Because radicalism in capitalist cities expresses resistance to the exploitation and oppression inherent in those processes, it is never free of spatial dynamics. It always exhibits a desire to appropriate space, to make places into resources for radical struggle and symbols of popular rights to the capitalist city. The task of the historian of the radical city is to find the patterns in these dynamics and to relate these to the changing nature of radical struggle.

Radical history as a tradition, as an approach to viewing and writing history, has depth in terms of time and variety. It includes magisterial works like those of A. L. Morton (A People’s History of England, 1938), G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate (The Common People, 1938), Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States, 1980), and Edward Vallance (A Radical History of Britain, 2009). It is the tradition in which practitioners like maritime historian Marcus Rediker and commons historian Peter Linebaugh work. When Australian historians conceived  ‘labour history’ in the early 1960s, they did so in the radical history tradition, determining to make working people part of Australian historical discourse and challenge the prevailing hegemony of imperial/colonial/ruling class histories, and seeking to use the study of labouring people and their institutions as a political tool to assist the shaping of the present and future. In 1983 Eric Fry, one of these pioneers, published Rebels & Radicals, asserting the role of conflict, struggle and rebellion as important parts of the Australian story, a notion that had become muted in the academic study of labourism.

sydneyBefore the 1960s, and particularly within the orbit of the Communist Party of Australia, labour intellectuals (such as Bob Walshe, James Rawling, Bill Wood, and Rupert Lockwood) researched, wrote, and published in labour movement outlets, radical histories of Australian struggles for popular democracy and of the agency of working people. The work and output of these historians is, still, virtually unfurrowed by researchers, and undeservedly so. Their approach to popularising radical history can be traced back to socialist pioneer, agitator, artist and poet, William Morris, whose writings Nicholas Salmon has collected in William Morris on History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). Dorothy Thompson, radical historian of Chartism, recalled that in 1991 she asked husband E P Thompson whether he was still the Marxist historian he once was, and he replied “that he preferred to call himself ‘a Morrisist’”.  This reply is both poetic and political, capturing the step ‘beyond’ to which radical historians aspire.

It is the aspiration that publisher Ian Syson (Vulgar Press) and authors Jeff and Jill Sparrow brought to the radical history of the geographical-political space that is Melbourne in Radical Melbourne: A Secret History (Vulgar Press: Melbourne, 2001). Since then other ‘radical city’ books have followed: Radical Melbourne II (by the same authors and publisher, 2004), Radical Brisbane (edited by Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier, Vulgar Press, 2004), and Radical Sydney (UNSW Press, 2010), featured in a review on the spatial resources of radical Sydney. Earlier at the University of Ballarat in 2009, Robert Hodder successfully produced a two-part doctoral thesis (exegesis and documents) titled ‘Radical Tasmania: Rebellion, reaction and resistance: A thesis in creative nonfiction.’ Later, a Wollongong team, working from a script written by John Rainford, released their 60 minute-long film Radical Wollongong: A People’s History of Wollongong in 2014, which went on to tour Australia and parts of Asia and to win two Awards at the Canadian Labour International Film Festival (2014), including ‘Best in Festival’. As the co-authors of Radical Sydney, we are keen to see this form of radical history continued.

Radical Newcastle: inventing the wheel?

The reader picking up Radical Newcastle (NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2015), edited by James Bennett, Nancy Cushing, and Erik Eklund, could be forgiven for thinking that the editors, all University of Newcastle historians, have invented the wheel, for there is no recognition in the book that Radical Newcastle is part of this vibrant and visible, if somewhat marginalised in Australian academic circles, area of historical work. The editors seem completely indifferent to the long tradition of writing about history from a radical perspective, the tradition of radical history of which the ‘radical city’ books are a part. Nor are they aware of the recent radical scholarship by Mike Davis, David Harvey, Justin McGuirk, and others, that has transformed the study of cities.

The editors of Radical Newcastle describe their book as ‘the outcome of community-engaged research’ that aimed to connect ‘with the interests and concerns of our local community’. In other words its genre is public history with community involvement. Fair enough; that’s a recognised kind of history, although one frequently derailed by deceptive ideas of social unity. The problem is that the subject of their history book is radicalism, and radical history is a tradition the editors don’t engage with. Should they have? Well, imagine writing a book called ‘Indigenous Newcastle’ but neglecting to take into account the literature of Aboriginal history.

A version of this post was originally published on the ‘Labour History Melbourne’ site 14 March 2016.

Rowan Cahill
Rowan Cahill has worked as a teacher, freelance writer, agricultural labourer, and for the trade union movement as a journalist, historian, and rank and file activist. He is currently an Honorary Fellow with the Faculty of Law, Humanities & the Arts, at Wollongong University (NSW). Rowan has published extensively in labour movement, radical, and academic publications; his books include as co-author A History of the Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1872-1972 (1981), Twentieth Century Australia: Conflict and Consensus (1987); and as co-editor, A Turbulent Decade: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975, (2005). His most recent book is Radical Sydney (co-authored with Terry Irving). Cahill and Irving blog at ‘Radical Sydney/Radical History’.
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  • Rowan Cahill
    April 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Readers of this piece should understand that the sole authorial attribution to myself here is due to a technical issue, and that this piece is an authorial product of the long-standing historical/political partnership of Terry Irving and myself, as is Part 2 that will follow. Enjoy.

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